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If you haven't gotten into mezcal — Mexico's other agave-based spirit — it's about time you gave this smoky elixir a shot. As mezcal sales continue to rise and the spirit makes its way into more cocktail programs across the U.S., it's a great time to get to know this slightly lesser known spirit. Before getting into a few of our personal favorite bottles, let's break it down a bit.
First, what exactly is mezcal, and how is it different than tequila?
Mezcal is a distilled spirit derived from fermented cooked agave. Although tequila and mezcal are both made from the agave plant, the differentiating factor lies in what type of agave is used in the distillation process. There are hundreds of different types of agave plants, and mezcal can be made from over 30 of these varietals. Tequila, on the other hand, is made from blue agave only.
To put it simply: Tequila is technically a type of mezcal, because any spirit made from agave is classified as mezcal. So, all tequilas are technically mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas. Follow our drift?
Where is mezcal produced? Is this different than where tequila is produced?
You betcha! Although both mezcal and tequila are both produced in Mexico, Jalisco is the epicenter of tequila production, while the further-south region of Oaxaca produces more than 90% of the world's mezcal supply.
How is mezcal made? Is the process different than tequila?
Both tequila and mezcal are made by steaming the hearts of the agave plant (called the piñas). The agave used for tequila is steamed in ovens that are aboveground, while mezcal producers use in-ground fire pits filled with charcoal or wood to roast the agave. The charcoal or wood can sometimes account for an added smokiness or slightly charred flavor. The cooked agave is then crushed, combined with water, and allowed to ferment.
What does mezcal taste like?
A great question, you curious spirits scholar, you. This is probably the most oft-misunderstood element of mezcal, because flavor really varies from one species of agave to the next. While many mezcal varieties do indeed have a pronounced smoky, charred taste (especially mezcal made from the most common espadín agave plant), there are certainly exceptions.
In fact, mezcal made from a slightly rarer variety of agave called tobalá often has a sweet, delicate, and almost floral flavor. Tobaziche agave, on the other end of the spectrum, is often harvested wild and can make for a herbaceous, savory mezcal.
Now that you're a mezcal expert, check out our top picks for our absolute favorite mezcal varieties to sip this season.
One of the most alluring and special silver mezcal options on the market, Ilegal's Mezcal Joven is intensely fresh, herbaceous, and earthy. This sultry mezcal has a smoky sweetness and hints of white pepper that linger with the finish, making you go back for another sip. Sip this mezcal neat but just slightly chilled — it makes for a perfect nightcap.
Best Budget Buy
Many bartenders keep a bottle of Del Maguey Vida Mezcal on-hand for a reason: It's refreshing, versatile, and super budget-friendly. This clean and simple organic mezcal makes a great gateway to the spirit for beginners, and it also works magically in just about any spicy or smoky mezcal cocktail.
If you're on the hunt for a special bottle of mezcal to add to your home bar or gift to your friend who's an agave aficionado, check out this unique option from Siembra. This mezcal hails from Mexico's Michoacan region, an area where recent archaeological surveys have discovered remnants of ancient Chinese clay stills that suggest a very old distilling culture that could even predate Mexico's Oaxaca region.
Made from the rare Agave Cenizo, this ancestral mezcal is rustic, spicy, and filled with fascinating history.
Creyente is made from a unique mixture of agave harvested from two drastically different regions in Mexico: fertile Tlacolula with its rich and earthy soils, and Yautepec, a wild and mountainous terrain. The result of this unconventional agave blend is an equally unconventional mezcal that's spicy, wild, and, well ... kind of crazy.
This mezcal is at once fruity, sweet, and smooth while also having overarching smoky mesquite notes — a mystifying combination that'll keep you sipping.
Citrusy, herbaceous, bright, and herbal, Viejo Indecente Mezcal reminds us a little bit of an artisanal botanical gin. This mezcal also has subtle briny notes — a quality not found in most agave spirits — which makes it especially perfect to pair with raw oysters, seared scallops, and other fresh seafood.
If you're staying away from intensely smoky or woodsy mezcal and looking for a lighter, floral option, this Durango Mezcal from Mezcales de Leyenda is what we recommend you try. On the nose, you'll pick up earthy aromas of leather, wet grass, and clay, with a persistent floral freshness that blooms with each sip.